Murder on the Orient Express

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writer: Michael Green


Dame Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Without those two names you don’t get the classic whodunit as we know it today. Christie’s work is now so iconic that you don’t even have to have read a single word of her writing to recognise the formula. There’s been a murder, everyone’s a suspect, a top detective is brought in to solve the crime and the audience sees if they can crack the case before the big reveal. It’s a formula that we’ve seen in movies time and time again from the classic Hollywood film noirs and Clair’s adaptation of Christie’s And Then There Were None to more recent examples like Clue and The Hateful Eight. Murder on the Orient Express is perhaps the most famous single story Christie ever wrote and it has been adapted numerous times, most notably in 1974 with Albert Finney and in 2010 with David Suchet. This time it’s Branagh, sporting a hideous moustache, who steps into the shoes of Christie’s iconic detective in what he hoped would be a dynamic retelling of the classic mystery.

It is 1934 and we are introduced to world-famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh and his ridiculous moustache) as he solves a case in Jerusalem. He must then immediately return to London for another case and is offered passage on the Orient Express by his good friend Bouc (Tom Bateman). Soon after the train departs Poirot receives an offer from the shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) to protect him from harm for the three-day journey after receiving an anonymous threatening letter, an offer which Poirot declines. The next morning Ratchett is discovered dead in his compartment and an avalanche stops the train in its tracks. A note is discovered connecting Ratchett’s murder to the infamous case of a murdered little girl in the USA and Poirot resolves to discover who among the other passengers killed him. His suspects include the governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), the missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Count Rudolph (Segei Polunin) and Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton), the butler Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi), the widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), the deceased’s assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.).

For me the biggest reservation I had going into this film was Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. Not because I dislike Branagh as an actor (I don’t) or because of that inhuman abomination to both man and God that he calls a moustache, but because David Suchet embodied the famous detective so perfectly on the ITV series that all other incarnations of the character, including the Oscar-nominated Finney and the Bafta-nominated Ustinov, will forever be fighting for second place. Still Branagh puts on the gross eyesore that occupies his upper lip and he has a go at Christie’s most famous character, playing him as an inflexible control-freak who cannot tolerate imperfections in the world, whether they be the physical imperfections of two uneven boiled eggs or the moral imperfections of human beings. Branagh is a good enough actor that he is able to play the atrociously-moustached Poirot with the sufficient flash and gravitas while also scoring some laughs with his one-liners, but his decision to attribute Poirot’s meticulousness as obsessive-compulsive tendencies made for what I found to be a far less interesting character than the altogether more eloquently-moustached Suchet, whose perfectionism as Poirot came from a steadfast, unyielding belief in the absolute virtue of the law, God, and decency.

Still, Branagh the actor didn’t bother me as much as Branagh the director did. He makes a strong attempt to make the Christie mystery feel cinematic, which is an effort that I do admire but don’t think ultimately worked. When we see Poirot boarding the Orient Express in a single, sweeping tracking shot or when we witness the discovery of Ratchett’s body with a static overhead shot that leaves the corpse just out of frame, the style of these shots called so much attention to themselves that they struck me as self-indulgent flourishes rather than as creative cinematic storytelling techniques. It’s the same kind of self-indulgence that I imagine inspired Branagh to feature Poirot and his ghastly facial fur at centre stage throughout the whole film at the detriment of the all-star ensemble at his disposal. Some actors do manage to give out a great deal with the little they’re dealt, most notably Pfeiffer as the glamorous and wealthy widow in search of her next husband, but other characters, including those played by the enormously talented likes of Olivia Colman and Derek Jacobi, simply do not get enough time to dance in their acting shoes. All are side-lined and are mainly there to sit and look astonished so the film can spend as much time as it can focusing on how incredibly impressive Poirot and his egregious display of horrendous facial hair are.

I saw the film with two friends who did not know the ending and, while the final twist did seem to take them by surprise, they left feeling overall underwhelmed. The movie just doesn’t have that edge-of-your-seat momentum that a great whodunit should have. The private interrogations that Poirot conducts with each of the passengers do not have that captivating sense of intrigue and feeling of inquisitiveness because Branagh is much more interested in showcasing the deductive brilliance of Poirot and his abominable whiskers than in fleshing out all these secretive characters and getting to the heart of the mystery. The movie is so desperate for tension that it resorts to a cheap, generic Hollywood chase scene along the exterior of the train. Even the big reveal fails to impress as it relies too much on style and not enough on substance, even going so far as to arrange all the characters into an impractical pose that evokes The Last Supper (I guess making Poirot Da Vinci because that’s how much of a genius he is). As with the later seasons of Sherlock, this is a case of an artist getting so carried away with showing everyone how brilliantly brilliant his brilliant character and brilliant style are that all else gets swept aside and the story suffers because of it. Murder on the Orient Express is a stylish but empty remake that did not need to be made. Also I didn’t like the moustache.

★★

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Blade Runner 2049

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writers: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green


If you were to put together a list of the five most influential science-fiction films of all time, there would not even be a question about including Blade Runner. I’m hard pressed to think of any sci-fi movie from the last three decades that doesn’t owe some kind of debt to Ridley Scott’s dystopian masterpiece. It is the film that redefined the genre, introducing a groundbreaking tone and visual style oft-replicated but never surpassed and exploring existential themes with immense sophistication and profundity. Blade Runner has had thirty-five years to secure its position as a landmark in the history of cinema and it’s still too early to tell whether the sequel will prove to be as monumental. What is clear however is that Blade Runner 2049 is not a pale imitation or a cheap cash grab; it’s the real thing. This is nothing less than a visually stunning picture that takes the same ideas about humanity, reality, and existence, and expands on them thoughtfully, compellingly, and beautifully.

There are details about the plot that I shouldn’t and won’t share here because the reveals are too good to spoil for the viewer. What I can tell you is that the movie takes place in Los Angeles in 2049. The Tyrell Corporation has gone bankrupt since the events of the first film and Replicants are now manufactured by the Wallace Corporation, led by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Our protagonist is a Blade Runner called K (Ryan Gosling). He reports to Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) of the LAPD and lives in a small, plain apartment with his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), also a product of the Wallace Corporation. His job is to hunt down and ‘retire’ rogue Replicants, which we see him do in the opening scene with Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), a rogue Replicant just trying to live a peaceful life as a farmer. It is during this confrontation that he makes a discovery which will launch a mystery that leads him to question everything he knows about himself and the world around him.

To call this film a visual masterpiece is an understatement. Villeneuve, working with frequent collaborator and thirteen-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, has constructed a banquet for the eyes. Together they have recreated Ridley Scott and Philip K. Dick’s futuristic world with its polluted skyline, oppressive buildings, and torrents of rain and have used it all to create countless images of supreme beauty and poetry. You could put this film on mute and still enjoy it for the visual splendour that it is, but the ingenuity of the images is how they serve the story, characters, and themes at every turn. Images like K arriving at a new location shrouded by sand and dust and stepping tentatively into the hazy distance, uncertain of what he will find there. Images like our first glimpse of the blind Wallace and his striking white irises, a man who cannot see but who has vision. Images like a giant hologram approaching K and standing before him, a visual reminder of the cost he has had to pay to get to the truth. It is the two artists’ meticulous attention to detail and their profound understanding of the story and its ideas that enable this film to rise far beyond being an empty visual spectacle.

In Blade Runner Harrison Ford delivered what many (including myself) consider to be his greatest performance. Although he does indeed return and is on top form, it is Ryan Gosling who makes this film. Here he plays a man struggling with his own humanity, not unlike Deckard but not exactly like him either. Gosling plays the character similarly to when he did Drive, subdued, stoic, and handsome on the outside but anxious, confused, and vulnerable within. He plays both sides remarkably well and is able to be emotional without being melodramatic, just like Ford thirty-five years before. The other standouts were two actresses whom I had not encountered before: Ana de Armas, who plays K’s artificial sweetheart so affectionately that your heart breaks at the thought of them being unable to consummate their love, and Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, a Replicant enforcer, which she plays with ice-cold steeliness.

The story itself unfolds like a noir mystery, following our protagonist along with every step and taking its time with each development and reveal. With all the pressure and expectation surrounding this film, Villeneuve is to be applauded for having enough confidence in his story, his ability to tell it, and the audience’s ability to follow it, that he never feels compelled to rush things along. He adopts a slow but natural pace and allows events to progress in their own time, never once resorting to cheap, attention-grabbing tricks or throwing in action for the sake of action. The film measures at 163 minutes and I will confess that I did look at my watch once as the film entered the third act, but did so not out of boredom but rather out of a realisation that it had taken me a full two hours to notice the passage of time. For some the plot will drag, and that’s understandable, but the story is so fascinating and the visuals are so spectacular that I suspect the film’s runtime will become less of an issue with repeat viewings.

There is so much more to say and dissect, but first one must watch the film. Blade Runner 2049 is at its heart a mystery and its broader themes cannot be discussed without some reference to what actually happens. I can say that, like the first film, it is as much a mystery in a philosophical sense as it is in a detective sense and so many of the questions it raises are not there to be answered but to be contemplated. Even the mystery surrounding the nature of Deckard’s character is never given a clear answer; it is one that the film sustains, explores, expands upon, and adds layers to, and in the end it is up to the viewer to decide how to interpret it. This is what makes the film such a worthy successor to Blade Runner. It seeks not to solve its mysteries, but to expand on them. It seeks not to replace or improve on Scott’s film, but rather to build on its legacy and continue what it started. It captures the very soul of the sci-fi classic and lives up to its example without mimicking it, giving us two companion pieces that complement and enrich each other.

★★★★★

Logan

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant, Dafne Keen

Director: James Mangold

Writers: Scott Frank, James Mangold, Michael Green


In Jackman’s final turn as the character that made him a star, Fox has finally delivered the Wolverine movie that fans have been waiting for. It’s probably significant that this movie was made with the intention of being Jackman’s final turn as the metal-clawed mutant. After having already seen him featured in two solo films, one terrible and one boring, I can imagine the filmmakers felt some pressure to use this one final chance to get it right. There will be other Wolverine movies I’m sure, but there may never be another actor who embodies this character as perfectly as Hugh Jackman did. With Logan he is finally allowed to fully realise this character he helped bring to life in a way he never he could in any of the prior X-Men films and it was well worth the wait. What makes Logan great is not just the way it portrays this iconic character, but also how it stands within the X-Men franchise and how it comments on the superhero genre that has dominated Hollywood for well over a decade.

Set far in the future where mutants are all but extinct, Logan (Hugh Jackman) has long since abandoned his calling as Wolverine. Now working as a limo driver, his healing factor has faltered and he has now become weaker and weary with age. With the help of the mutant tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant), Logan cares for Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), now suffering from dementia and no longer in control of his telepathic abilities. At this time Logan is approached by Gabriela Lopez (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a nurse on the run from a secretive government organisation, who begs him to take in and protect an eleven-year-old girl called Laura (Dafne Keen). Hot on their trail is Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the cybernetically-enhanced security officer charged with the girl’s retrieval. After an encounter where Logan learns that Laura possesses abilities similar to his own, they must go on the run with Xavier in search of a place called Eden.

After Deadpool proved once and for all that superhero movies could go for an R rating and still be massively successful, Logan followed suit and fully embraces the liberties that became available. In the very first scene Logan is protecting his car from a gang of thugs intent on stealing his tires and the fight that ensues is unlike anything we’ve seen from Wolverine before. Skulls and bones are being sliced, blood is splattering all over the place, and Logan swears like a sailor with every blow he’s dealt. However what makes the action feel so different from what we’re used to extends far beyond the blood and gore. Here Mangold does away with the rapidly edited, distantly shot action that the Marvel blockbusters tend to favour. Here the fighting is up close, intensely choreographed and much more raw and organic. When Logan gets hit, he feels it.

What makes Logan truly special though is not just the action, but also the characters and the story they tell. Logan is an old man now and Jackman plays him as a wearied soul, haunted by past traumas and losses and reluctant to ever fight again (not unlike Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven). He has grown disillusioned with the ideals he once believed in, especially now that the man who originally inspired him is little more than a raving loony. Professor X has gone senile and Stewart is loving every second of it as he rants and raves about the place while Logan tries to care for him. Keen is also great in her turn as Laura, a silent role that requires her to be as expressive as she can with her looks and gestures. All three play their role with such resolve, comedy, pathos and humanity that Logan reaches beyond what we’ve come to expect from the superhero genre and provides something altogether deeper and more stimulating.

Jackman was there when the cinematic superhero craze started, and now here he is 17 years later where the fatigue has set in for many audiences. Who better then to use as a model for the consideration and analysis of the genre and how it has evolved? There is a complex morality that comes with the superhero mythos, full of grey areas and contradictions, that goes largely unexplored (or perhaps underexplored) by superhero movies for the most part but which Logan fully embraces. The movie takes a fundamentally cynical view towards the superhero myth, establishing that the whole thing very much as a myth, the kind that only exists in children’s comic books or movies like Shane. Even after all the heroics he accomplished as Wolverine, Logan has gone on to lose everyone he cares about and none of the problems he solved or the people he’s saved have really mattered. Things have gone to hell and people have gotten hurt despite (and sometimes because) of what he’s done. And yet there are still some who believe in him and who believe that what he does is important and is for the better. The deconstruction of the genre is a fascinating one that at once dispels the myth of the superhero while also reaffirming it.

Between Logan and Deadpool, it looks like the game is very much changing for the superhero movie. As much as I enjoy the popcorn quality of the Marvel and DC movies, there is an undeniable fatigue that has set in. These franchises have adopted a certain business as usual sensibility that hasn’t exactly made them less enjoyable to watch (not for me anyway) but somewhat less fulfilling. It is for example difficult to feel that anything is really at stake in the Marvel and DC films when all of their actors are contracted to appear in future titles. It’s also true that these movies often spend so much time setting up future stories that you never really feel like you’re watching an actual story unfold. The superhero films are also falling victim to their conventions which, unless done very well, can feel tired and predictable (as it can with any genre). This is why movies like Logan are needed to shake up the genre, explore new directions and possibilities, and go deeper than any has gone before. What’s more, Logan is quite simply a great film with a profound story, excellent action, and a marvellous performance by Jackman.

★★★★★